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When Its Time To Go: Firing Crummy Board Members

We’ve come a long way. Surviving the challenges of 2020 was difficult. Many nonprofits folded or were drastically injured. Some boards were frozen and lackluster in responding to the crisis we all endured. Poor performance in times of adversity will have long lasting effects that may take years to repair, so firing crummy nonprofit board members may become necessary.

As a board member, you may have reassessed what board service really means. You’ve taken stock of the entire board and have questions about governance and leadership. More than once you’ve wondered how a few peer board members were invited on the board you serve on. One or two are just bumps on a log in meetings. They are complacent, not engaged and rarely say anything. Others have been rogue – rude and overly dominant in meetings. Then there’s the member who is argumentative and confrontational. He always thinks he is right and votes against any policy that is presented. There are three members you haven’t seen since the first board meeting in 2020. Why are people like this allowed to stay on the board when their behavior is just bad? They are not contributing to the health and effectiveness of your nonprofit.

Something needs to happen to move boards out of a state of apathy, confusion, or straight negligence as it relates to their oath to advocate, educate, and fundraise for their organizations. It’s the time for firing crummy nonprofit board members and replacing them with others who will help set or keep the organization on the right path.

Well governed boards with trained leaders have thorough policies and bylaws that make it easier to release board members for poor performance. Before hasty decisions are made however, the board should evaluate its onboarding practices and consistent trainings to be sure that board members are informed early about expectations, behavior, and culture and given the tools they need to be successful.

A good board orientation should include multiple key documents to help newbies acclimate to the nonprofit and board culture. A few point specifically to behavior and cultural norms. These include bylaws, member agreements, conflict of interest policies, attendance policies, insurance coverage, board resolutions, and whistleblower polices. Consistent and helpful training should cover program updates, volunteering, advocacy, fundraising, and recruitment. These will help the board to stay abreast of trends, industry news, ways to secure funds, and new board members.

But who ultimately is responsible for high-performing board members? Some would say the Executive Director/CEO, others would say the board Chair, and a few others may say Executive staff. The truth is everyone is responsible for ensuring an effective board; the CEO, board Chair, Governance Committee, individual board member and to some extent executive staff can assist in helping the board to be productive and impactful in advancing mission.

Let’s be honest. Board members are just people who have decided to serve and elevate their nonprofits. Hopefully they come with identified skill sets that the Nominating or Governance Committees viewed as valuable and needed to help the board to soar. But most are not trained from the start and should be given an opportunity to do good work. This means they have rights and expectations from their nonprofits too. In fact, knowing the Board Member Bill of Rights will provide some accountability to ensure that the board and staff of the nonprofit are not contributing to poor performance

Here are just a few of the Board Member Bill of Rights:

  • Thorough onboarding and orientation

  • Access to financial statements

  • Receipt of timely notifications about meetings

  • The right to call out other board members for poor behavior

  • The right to ask questions about policies and procedures

  • Professionalism

Checks and balances are needed for staff and the board to make sure board performance is optimal. Monitoring performance of both should be an ongoing and formal process.

Once it is clear that the board has provided ample training and support for its members, and even additional coaching when a problem arises, then discussions about releasing a member for poor performance can resume.

The “Removal” section in the bylaws should clearly outline how a board member is let go. The Governance Committee should meet and speak formally with the board member in question at an agreed time. This conversation should be respectful and gracious and should address why the decision has been made. The board member should be given an opportunity to respond. Notes from this meeting should be filed and documented. A subsequent letter in writing should follow finalizing the end of the board contract.

Remember, serving on a board is like a job. It is serious business that requires commitment, ethics, and professionalism. Inviting board members to leave the board can be awkward but not inviting them to exit is irresponsible. The Governance Committee is responsible for enhancing attrition. After all, other board members see bad behavior and may exit voluntarily if there are no consequences for breach of contracts. Therefore, successfully firing crummy nonprofit board members can be a major way to retain high-performing board members.

If releasing members is done with integrity and grace, relationships with the individuals who once agreed to support your organization can be salvaged. Remember to never use words like “fire” or “crummy” in conversations with the released member or the remaining members. For those who wish to remain connected, joining the “Friends of …. Group” or the advisory council which requires less commitment, may be a great option.

If we are to build and rebuild strong organizations in 2021, we must know when it is time to thank, bless, and release those, who for whatever reason, cannot deliver on their promise to successfully aid the organization to fulfill its mission. Boards are commissioned to help the nonprofit make an indelible impact in the community it serves. If members cannot do this, it’s simply time to move on.

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